Swami Vivekananda and Non-Hindu Traditions
A Universal Advaita
- ISBN: 9781472483751
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: May 2019
Swami Vivekananda and Non-Hindu Traditions: A Universal Advaita by Stephen E. Gregg does not limit itself to Swami Vivekananda’s engagement with non-Hindu religious traditions. This is a new addition to the already large corpus of writings on Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), an Indian monk and philosopher, who preached the divinity of the individual and the universality of spirituality and became famous after his inaugural speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions that took place in Chicago in 1893. Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, twin monastic organisations engaged in social, educational, healthcare, relief, rehabilitation, and motivational activities. The space devoted to Vivekananda’s treatment of non-Hindu traditions is much less than one might expect, and Gregg also argues that Vivekananda was not, contrary to what some believe, the hero at the World’s Parliament of Religions. However, this argument is undercut in part by Gregg’s own admission that “many eyewitness accounts … attest to the popularity and impact of Vivekananda on a personal and social level at the Parliament” (215).
Gregg claims that he attempts to “re-appropriate Vivekananda from the clutches of Hindutva ideologues and activists” (3). However, his analysis of Vivekananda’s work is characterized by a selective and sometimes misinformed reading of the extant texts on Vivekananda. Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) was an Indian mystic, who practiced various branches of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity and concluded that all religions lead to the same goal. He was the guru or spiritual teacher of Swami Vivekananda. Reading imagined contexts of overt physicality in Sri Ramakrishna, Gregg argues that Vivekananda “devalued or ignored” “overt physicality and gender relations” in his “subsequent representations of Ramakrishna” (105). Gregg contends that Vivekananda resorted to “a specific censoring of Ramakrishna’s religious experiences, which are devalued by Vivekananda in his representations to the West, even though he valorizes Ramakrishna’s direct realization of reality” (105). Gregg fails to appreciate that Vivekananda addressed the western audience in a language they could understand at that time and hence did not elaborate on Ramakrishna’s religious experiences—but not because he did not believe in them. Gregg argues that concepts like worship, idol-worship, and avatara (incarnation) were all seen by Vivekananda only as preliminary steps. There is no proof to suggest that Ramakrishna himself did not consider them to be so. Also, considering these practices to be preliminary does not mean that Vivekananda denounced them.
Gregg goes into an impressive and detailed analysis of religion and reform in 19th-century Bengal to provide context for Vivekananda’s work. It is another example of how this book digresses from its main theme, although it does help surface hitherto less-appreciated elements of 19th-century Indian history. Gregg also studies the history of the publication of Vivekananda works.
Gregg critiques the huge corpus of Vivekananda’s writings by citing examples of lapses in editing by the publishers of these writings. Though Gregg relies on this corpus to prove his points throughout the book, he simultaneously questions its authenticity. This sometimes leads Gregg to cite texts that he does not consider authentic to prove his argument. Knowingly or unknowingly, Gregg has collated all critiques on Vivekananda, and it is disheartening that he has missed some authors.. Gregg takes an almost accusatory tone in noting that Vivekananda practiced Advaita, which is unreasonable because Vivekananda has spoken and written volumes on devotion, meditation, the yoga of action or karma yoga, and many other spiritual disciplines. It appears to be lost on Gregg that a person could practice a particular tradition and yet have a universal approach to other faith traditions. This could be a shortcoming of a dry academic standpoint.
Academic attempts to analyze religious personalities completely shorn off from spiritual practices have only led to lopsided understandings of these personalities, as evidenced by various treatments of figures. A person’s spiritual journey is an integral part of their religious identity, and they cannot be understood properly without attending to this dimension their experience.
Gregg argues that “it is Advaita to which Vivekananda is really referring when he uses the term religion” and that Vivekananda shows “a ranking, or hierarchy of faiths, making distinctions between ‘low’ and ‘high’ forms or levels of spiritual engagement” (200). What Gregg calls hierarchy is merely the stepwise progress of spiritual or religious life. The general tenor of Gregg’s arguments throughout the book leaves this reader confused regarding the point the author is trying to make. For instance, Gregg cites Vivekananda and argues that the “Christian criticism of Hinduism is addressed head-on by Vivekananda when he declares: ‘Throughout the whole order of Sanscrit [sic] philosophy, I challenge anybody to find any such expression as that the Hindu only would be saved and not others.’ This is a clear criticism of Christianity’s reliance on its historicity, in asserting its authority” (201). Gregg is silent about whether Vivekananda’s claim was authentic. Does Gregg think that there should be no critiquing of religious traditions? Was he unnecessarily blaming Christianity? It is as if Gregg wants to appreciate Vivekananda but is unable to do so or, conversely, wants to denounce Vivekananda and is unable to.
Gregg casually questions the veracity of Ramakrishna’s engagement with other religions and asserts that “Ramakrishna adhered to a superficial form of practical pluralism, wherein he observed non-Hindu religious rites and customs, but consistently returned to a Hindu-conception of divine reality when comparing and contrasting his experiences” (225). It is only natural that a religious practitioner would see other faith traditions from the perspective of one’s religion. Though Gregg claims to study Vivekananda in the context of 19th-century India, he is silent on the injustices that were perpetrated by Christian missionaries who could have formed part of Vivekananda’s “perceived ‘opponents’ of Hinduism in general” (226). It is not the case that there was no Hinduphobia to contend with.
The central position Gregg advances in this book is challenging to grasp. It is quite difficult to understand where exactly does he have differences with Vivekananda and where does he not? After using his entire book to critique Vivekananda, Gregg concludes that “Vivekananda was concerned with the universal human religious condition . . . within an Advaitic worldview. . . . [but] the spiritual truths he offered were not confined to Hinduism, but could only be truly understood when applied to a wider range of religious traditions” (229). Though this is Gregg’s conclusion, whatever he says in title of the book, its introduction, and the conclusion do not align with the arguments that he makes in the book.
Swami Narasimhananda is the secretary of Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama, Kozhikode, India.Swami NarasimhanandaDate Of Review:February 27, 2022